"Have a seat with us, Mr Neill," McGonagall kindly said. "We shan't stand on ceremony now, though of course once term starts and you're Sorted you'll want to sit with your housemates."
Hagrid and Madam Pomfrey, the school nurse, joined us shortly. Dumbledore was attending to other business but would see me directly after breakfast, McGonagall informed me. The rest of the Faculty were otherwise engaged or on holiday. Sybil Trelawney was attending a Divinator's conference in Brighton; Professors Sprout and Vector were visiting family; the DADA position was currently unfilled (I didn't ask after the acronym, but looked it up later); and Professor Snape (Potions, I recalled) was off to parts and affairs unknown.
"Good thing for you," Madam Hooch contributed with a snort. "Snape despises Muggle Studies, let me tell you."
"Really, I think you overstate that a little --" McGonagall interjected mildly.
"Minerva, it's no use. You can't let her run into him without warning her; it's not fair," Hooch retorted.
"Headmaster warned me off mentioning Macbeth to him," I said to her with a grin. "Takes himself a bit seriously, does he?"
"To say the least. Behaves like he has a broomstick up his --"
A strangled cough -- and pointed look in Ian's direction -- from McGonagall cut her off.
"Well, just don't expect a warm welcome, that's my advice," Hooch finished bluntly.
"Tell me, Professor Hunter," Flitwick shot at me from his pile of cushions, eyes alight with interest, "did you see the RSC Macbeth?"
I assumed he meant the legendary Dench-McKellen production. "That was before I moved to England," I told him. "Did you?"
The Charms Master launched into an enthusiastic description of it. It appeared he was a closet dramaphile, with a particular weakness for West End musicals. So the remainder of breakfast passed easily enough, with Flitwick's avid questions to me monopolizing much of the conversation, and then it was time to get to work.
"Headmaster should be finished by now, I should think -- he'll expect you shortly," McGonagall said to me, "and Mr Neill, Professor Flitwick and I should like to see you in the Charms classroom until luncheon. You'll need to retrieve your wand before we start."
I was grateful for her decision to be present, though I couldn't imagine a less threatening male specimen to Ian than Flitwick. I'm not casting aspersion on his masculinity, mind -- it's just that he was barely Ian's height, and not in the least unapproachable.
We trotted back to our rooms, and the tension radiating from Ian was palpable. I couldn't tell whether it was normal nerves or the prospect of having to demonstrate his talent, but it hardly mattered: either could bring on an episode, and I had no idea how well McGonagall's Limiting Charm would work.
"Hey, Luv -- no worries," I said to him. "I think they're very nice people."
He shot me a pensive look, but didn't respond verbally as he fetched his wand from his room.
I sighed inwardly as I gathered together the materials I wanted to share with Dumbledore. There were times when Ian was far too much like my side of the family -- internalizing everything -- although he had far better reason than we'd ever had.
"So what do you think Professor Flitwick is, precisely?" I asked him to break the ice as I escorted him to the classroom.
He was silent for a moment, and then guessed, "Goblin?"
"Hmmm. The ears aren't quite right --"
We had to stop for a moment to wait while a staircase re-aligned itself for us.
"-- but you could be on to something. I would have said Dwarf." Total supposition, but as good a guess as any. I really am going to have a lot of research to do on this culture....
We stopped in front of the classroom, and Ian hesitated.
"Right, then. If I'm free after lunch, we'll see about visiting Hagrid and Fang." That would give him something to look forward to. "In you go," I said softly, and hugged him before I gently pushed him through the door.
Eventually I ran into -- or, rather, through -- Sir Nicholas, who helpfully guided me to a stern-looking gargoyle. He neglected, however, to tell me the password required to gain entrance before he melted away, and so I stood in front of the guardian and idiotically guessed.
"Headmaster's Office?" I asked it. No response. "Dumbledore?"
It remained impassive.
This is getting me nowhere.
I thought back to our previous meeting, and acted on impulse.
"Jelly babies?" Nothing. "Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans?" (Ian had tried those on the train: I almost did, but just then he bit into one that he described as 'bogey.' I wouldn't have recognised that particular flavour, and I didn't want to know how he did.)
The Every Flavour Beans got a definite response: the gargoyle's face twisted into a scowl, and the damned thing stuck its tongue out at me -- but didn't budge.
"Look, would you just let him know I'm here?" I growled in exasperation, and to my surprise the door slid open to reveal Dumbledore at the base of the stairs, eyes twinkling. I stepped through, and he ushered me up.
"Good morning, Professor Hunter. For your information, the password, for the duration, is 'Sugar Quill'."
"I was on the right track, at least -- just missed the station. Good morning." I preceded him into the office and turned to face him as he closed the door. "You, Sir," I stated in mock severity, "take an indecent amount of pleasure in keeping me off-balance."
He knew I was teasing, and mischief flared in his eyes.
"I have discovered over the course of a long and eventful life that one must take one's pleasures where one may." He guided me to a long table beneath a window, and gallantly pulled a chair back for me before seating himself. "You slept well?" He enquired.
"Very -- best I've had in months," I said as I began sorting through my things, and then I paused. "Headmaster... before we start, I need to thank you. I know you've gone to extraordinary lengths for us... and I confess I'd very much like to know why."
He didn't deny it, but only smiled at my directness.
"You're welcome, my dear." His forehead creased in thought, and he shifted to gaze absently out the window. "I admit I am not entirely certain yet as to why it was necessary... but, as with most things, time will tell," he added, and brought his attention back to me -- neatly sidestepping any explanation whatever.
"Now, let's go over the basic structure of the classes. Traditionally it has been taught from Home Life and Social Habits, which is somewhat eccentric in its organisation and really only covers trivial things -- vacuum cleaners, telephone usage, and the like. I propose the following curriculum: courses consisting of a one-term optional for First through Thirds, covering basic content. By Fourth Year it would be a required course and cover literature and art. Fifths and Sixths would cover History and Current Events, respectively -- this is where the greatest weakness in the Syllabus has always proved itself -- and Sevenths might elect to take practicals, depending on their interest and their life-plans after Hogwarts..."
We spent a pleasant two hours together, and agreed to meet the day after next to clarify our thoughts.
Headmaster glanced at me over the rim of his mug, his pleasure and relief at Ian's obvious ease mirroring my own. Ian still didn't quite trust Headmaster, but Dumbledore had set about wooing him with sweets to the point that I had to be quite severe with both of them. They were slowly forming quite a little conspiracy of two, finding ways to circumvent the limits I set.
Professor Sprout returned a few days after we arrived, and was becoming a good companion, as McGonagall had guessed -- warm and motherly, she'd invited us to her rooms on several occasions. We'd even begun seeking her out in the greenhouses to help with the less-hazardous seeding and repotting required for her own beginning-of-term preparations. She wasn't a substitute for Lucy and Paula, but she made us feel at home. And she and Hooch took the time -- and a certain gleeful malice, on Hooch's part -- to warn me, over glasses of sherry, of those students with which I'd likely have the most trouble.
I'd let slip to Flitwick that I had a nice selection of musicals on disc, and he'd accepted an invitation for a home-cooked meal and the chance to raid my collection. I had an ulterior motive, of course -- I wanted Ian to become more comfortable with him -- but Flitwick didn't mind in the least. Thereafter every Saturday night Flitwick would show up at our door and happily root amongst the recordings and my theatre texts while I worked on the syllabi and Ian read ahead in his schoolbooks.
You've experienced very little in life if you've never had a Charms Master esconced on your sofa, singing "There's No Business Like Show Business" along with Ethel Merman in a reedy but tuneful treble. Annie Get Your Gun notwithstanding, it soon became clear that Flitwick was a Rogers and Hammerstein kind of guy: he claimed to have seen all the original productions with the London casts. After working out the fact that this made him considerably older than I'd thought, I wondered how he'd made it into the theaters without attracting attention.
I was lulled into a false sense of security by our routine: I should have known better.
We were in the middle of breakfast and I was discussing the curriculum changes with Hooch when a tall, saturnine man strode into the Hall -- late -- and took a seat at the other end of the table, flinging himself into his chair and grunting noncommittally when the other faculty greeted him.
My first impression of him was 'buttoned-up,' literally and figuratively. He was entirely in black, with only a hint of white shirt at collar and cuffs; his long topcoat, very like an early 19th-century cleric's, buttoned all the way up to the chin and from elbow to wrist. And he simply oozed an air of repression.
"Severus, this is Professor Hunter -- Muggle Studies -- and her nephew Mr Neill, one of our new first years," Dumbledore offered mildly. "Miranda, Professor Snape." Headmaster then wantonly abandoned me, hastily turning his attention back to his bacon-and-eggs.
Snape's disdainful eyes stared at me through the untidy black hair that obscured half his face. "Miss Hunter," he said laconically. His voice was low and velvety, but absolutely without warmth; and then he shot a disapproving look at Ian, whom he pointedly neglected to address.
I should, by rights, have risen to greet him -- he was senior faculty, after all -- but his own lack of courtesy and the deliberate use of Miss rather than the academic honorific made my hackles rise. I had, it appeared, been instantly assessed and found lacking, and I'd be damned if I made a gesture of courtesy when it would so obviously be rebuffed.
"Professor Snape," I acknowledged coolly, and turned my attention back to Hooch.
Mentally, I heartily seconded her opinion of him. In fact, I didn't think 'broomstick up his arse' quite covered it.
It was a most uncomfortable meal. The Potions Master proceeded to glare at us at intervals throughout, and I was only able to sidetrack Ian's mounting tension by asking Hooch to explain Quidditch to us (it didn't take much persuasion). Ian was soon enthralled and oblivious to Snape, but I could still feel his basilisk stare, as oppressive as a weight on the chest, until we excused ourselves and escaped to our rooms.
As it was a free morning we cobbled together some sandwiches, packed a few books, and retreated to the grounds for the rest of the day, even though I knew it was highly unlikely we'd have to deal with Snape again other than at meals.
I for one have always regarded retreat as a sensible, if not entirely honourable, option.
"Miranda, my dear, I think that's as good as we can make it," Headmaster said softly after barely an hour. I looked up at him, startled, and he added, "It's up to you now. Good luck."
I felt bereft. True, it had been hard work: abandoning the standard text meant bringing in a lot of Muggle sources, and we'd spent hours debating the virtue of each, rejecting or approving them, and fitting them into the structure of each class. But it had been exciting too, and comforting to work with someone who cared so deeply about the subject and the students.
And I was going to miss the more leisurely moments when, sensing my brain was overloading, Headmaster would abruptly set the work aside, thrust a cup of tea into my hands, and speak instead of Hogwarts or the Wizarding World, or anything at all except his intense, personal desire to make this enterprise a success. For I was certain by now that he had a hidden agenda: it hovered about the room every time we'd discussed how the students might respond to the coursework and to me....
"I have every confidence in you, you know," Dumbledore added serenely, breaking into my thoughts.
"Yes, I do," I replied. I fiddled with my pen and resisted the ungrateful urge to point out just how much a burden someone's unalloyed confidence could foist on one. "Headmaster, may I... may I reserve the privilege of stopping by, on exceptionally bad days, for a cup of tea?" I hesitantly asked.
His bushy brows shot up. "Of course, Miranda," he said in astonishment. "You don't think I'd abandon you to your fate, do you?"
Didn't have a problem doing so at breakfast yesterday, I thought grumpily. "Sorry. I rather feel like I'm off to my first day of primary school, and I'm afraid to let go mum's hand," I admitted as I began to gather up the scrolls and books scattered around us.
"As terrifying as all that?" he teased, and the warmth in his voice told me the apology was accepted, though I still couldn't meet his eyes. "It's not a weakness to acknowledge you need the help of others, Miranda," he continued quietly.
"I know that -- at least intellectually." I finally looked at him and smiled. "Practising it has always been difficult."
"Never feel you cannot come to me when you have need," he replied. "If I'm available, I shall be more than happy to listen. And at any rate I'll want to know how things are coming along." He smiled fully, his bright blue eyes twinkling. "And I too enjoy our more social visits, you know."
Perceptive old rogue. I'd thought so, but it was nice to hear it.
He'd certainly have missed the odd opportunity for mischief that he indulged around me. For example, he'd discovered that my one glaring weakness where sweets was concerned was chocolate: lately he'd taken to slipping chocolate frogs into my workbag or pockets. It had taken me twenty-five minutes to catch the last escapees.
"Thank you, Headmaster," I replied, and gathering my things, I rose.
"You're welcome. Now go and enjoy the rest of the day -- do not," he added sternly, "worry about the syllabi any more today." And with a pat on my shoulder, he shooed me out of the office.
I walked back to my rooms, determined to take Dumbledore's advice: I had another hour free before Ian would be finished in Charms, and I considered how I might best fritter it away with pleasant idleness. And after lunch, Ian and I could go to Hogsmeade: he wasn't allowed after the start of term, and we hadn't been yet....
Sprout's cry stopped me with my hand on the door handle; her stout body hurtled down the stairs and she skidded to a halt, nearly running into me. "Your're needed in Charms --" she gasped between pants, "-- something terrible's happened --"
I dropped my bag and ran.
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